THIS is Learning Disability Week. Another week, another cause? It’s easy to get worn out. But as events proved last week, it’s vital that we don’t. On Monday, the body of 24-year-old Lee Irving was found in Newcastle. Lee had learning difficulties. He had, it seems, been murdered by bullies. His mother said he just wanted to make friends.
Lee’s tragic story is not an isolated incident. People with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be victims of violence as non-disabled people. People with learning disabilities are far more likely to experience hate crime.
‘People are still abused, even killed, just because they are seen as different’
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Disabled Person says that people with learning disabilities have the right to live in a society where this doesn’t happen. Governments and public bodies have a leading role to play in making this a reality. Service providers and campaigners have a crucial role as advocates.
But as Stonewall’s No Bystanders campaign reminds us in relation to homophobic and transphobic bullying, it’s down to all of us. People who perpetrate hate crime need to be brought to justice. But all too often crime is hidden in plain sight and we don’t intervene.
Tackling hate crime is just one aspect of Scotland’s learning disability strategy, “The keys to life”, published in 2013. Two key principles underpin that strategy, respecting human rights and eradicating health inequalities. And it’s what connects these principles that is critical. The focus on human rights is a far from abstract matter. People are still abused, even killed, just because they are seen as different.
The focus on health inequalities too is unarguable. People with learning disabilities die on average 20 years earlier than the general population. These early deaths are avoidable. They are often because of illnesses that are more prevalent amongst people with learning disabilities. And as Mental Welfare Commission investigations have shown, they are even because of indifference and neglect.
But it’s not enough to understand health as a set of conditions, physical or mental. Inequality itself, perpetuated by a lack of respect for basic human rights, is harmful to health. Ultimately the lives of people with learning disabilities will be transformed when healthy behaviours are the norm for everyone.
To make that happen we need a cultural shift in the institutional, social and physical environments. Professor Phil Hanlon calls this public health’s “fifth wave”. It follows the structural wave in the 19th century (clean water), the biomedical wave (antibiotics and vaccines), the clinical wave (the NHS itself) and most recently the social wave (tackling inequalities).
However, our historical treatment of people with learning disabilities (only recently people were still locked away) means they have a lot of catching up to do. They are still dying disproportionately of lifestyle-related diseases. They still suffer acutely from social isolation. Ask people with learning disabilities what they want and they more likely to say friendship than reduced waiting times.
Given huge demands on health and social care, stubbornly enduring health inequalities and the prevalence of mental illness, all of which disproportionately affect people with learning disabilities, a cultural shift in the way we imagine a healthy life is urgent. We need to think and act in new ways.
This is about prevention and service provision. Prevention can reduce the burden on provision. And it must start early, at home and in schools. But it’s also about being creative, bringing to life the Christie Commission’s focus on Co-production. Resources matter but so does nurturing individual assets.
Like human rights, the fifth wave of public health is far from abstract, as Lee’s murder painfully reminds us.
• Chris Creegan is chief executive of the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability